How India honours its top civilians

Every year on eve of Republic Day, civilian awards are announced to honour Indians for their distinguished service. Since 1954, when these awards were instituted, 48 people have got the Bharat Ratna, country’s highest civilian award, but most of the recipients have been politicians. The second category of civilian awards is Padma Awards. So far, more than 4,700 Padma Awards have been given. Do we even remember all the winners? Does that mean India doesn’t need so many civilian awards?

Story Highlights
  • The Bharat Ratna awardee receives a Sanad (certificate) signed by the President of India and a medallion. The medallion is in the form of a Peepal leaf, about 5.8 cm long, 4.7 cm wide and 3.1 mm thick. It is made of toned bronze. On its obverse is embossed a replica of the sun, 1.6 cm in diameter, below which the words Bharat Ratna are embossed in Devanagari script. On the reverse are State emblem and the motto, also in Devanagari. The emblem, the sun and the rim are of platinum. The inscriptions are in burnished bronze.
  • Protocol rank: Bharat Ratna recipients rank seventh in the Indian order of precedence, which is the government of India’s official protocol list. This puts winners on the same level as cabinet ministers or chief ministers.
  • Travel and passport: Winners can avail of free first-class flight tickets on Air India for both domestic and international flights. They get the special, maroon-covered diplomatic passports indicating that they are dignitaries representing India. It also gives them access to separate immigration counters and lounges at airports.
  • VVIP treatment: Both within India and outside, Bharat Ratna winners are considered as VVIP state guests and are accorded preferential treatment by state governments at home and Indian embassies abroad. This would mean having their accommodation looked after by these agencies.
  • The three Padma awards, meanwhile, are handed out in much larger numbers of people. Up to 120 Padmas can be announced every year, and from 1954 to 2014, more than 2,500 Padma Shris were given out. Unsurprisingly, Padma recipients do not enjoy any of the perks that Bharat Ratnas do.

One of the important announcements on the eve of Republic Day every year is that of civilian awards – the Bharat Ratna and the Padma Awards. Country’s top civilian award, the Bharat Ratna, is restricted to a maximum of three in a particular year. The Prime Minister recommends the name for this award to the President. For Padma Awards, which are given in three categories of Padma Vibhushan, Padma Bhushan and Padma Shri, the recommendations are made by the Padma Awards committee, headed by the cabinet secretary. A maximum of 120 Padma Awards can be given in a particular year.

This year, no one has got the Bharat Ratna. For Padma Awards, 7 got the Padma Vibhushan, 16 the Padma Bhushan and 118 the Padma Shri.

The civilian awards were instituted in 1954 when three Bharat Ratnas were announced: Dr Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan, Chakravarti Rajagopalachari and Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman, all from Tamil Nadu. Radhakrishnan was vice president of the country, Rajagopalachari was the last Governor-General of India before India became a Republic in 1950, and Raman had got the 1930 Nobel Prize for Physics.

Since then, 48 people have got Bharat Ratna, including Sachin Tendulkar, the only one to get it from the Sports category, and Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhai Tata, the only one to get it from the Trade and Industry category.

The President of India awards a Sanad (certificate) singed by him and a medallion to the Bharat Ratna awardees. The medallion is made by the India Government Mint in Kolkata. The cost of one Bharat Ratna medal and miniature along with its box cost Rs 257,732 in 2014. The awardees get several other benefits such as treatment as a state guest while travelling in India, diplomatic passport, which entitles them to a separate immigration counter and access to VIP lounge in the airports, lifetime free executive class travel on Air India and in state or ceremonial functions, precedence before Chief Ministers and Governors in order of protocol.

If you take a look at the awardees, you may want to believe these awards are primarily for politicians themselves. Out of 48 Bharat Ratna, 27 were awarded to politicians in the Public Affairs field, followed by 7 to Art field, including Satyajit Ray, Lata Mangeshkar and Ustad Bismillah Khan. Out of 14 Presidents in India so far, seven are Bharat Ratna; out of an equal number of Prime Ministers, eight got the top civilian award. Incidentally, Indira Gandhi got it before Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar and Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya, and Sachin Tendulkar became a Bharat Ratna before Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Nanaji Deshmukh, Dr Bhupen Hazarika and Pranab Mukherjee.

The Padma Awards are the second category of civilian honours, given in three categories: Padma Vibhushan (for exceptional and distinguished service), Padma Bhushan (distinguished service of higher order) and Padma Shri (distinguished service). The awardees get a Sanad (certificate) signed by the President and a medallion. The award, however, does not give any benefits like that to the Bharat Ratnas. The Padma Awards don’t amount to a title and cannot be used as a suffix or prefix to the awardees’ name.

In 1954, the Padma Awards was called Padma Vibhushan in three classes: Pahela Varg, Dusra Varg and Tisra Varg. These were subsequently renamed as Padma Vibhushan, Padma Bhushan and Padma Shri in January 1955. The Padma Awards are given in the following fields: Art (includes Music, Painting, Sculpture, Photography, Cinema, Theatre etc.); Social work (includes social service, charitable service, contribution in community projects etc.); Public Affairs (includes Law, Public Life, Politics etc.); Science & Engineering (includes Space Engineering, Nuclear Science, Information Technology, Research & Development in Science & its allied subjects etc.); Trade & Industry (includes Banking, Economic Activities, Management, Promotion of Tourism, Business etc.); Medicine (includes medical research, distinction/specialization in Ayurveda, Homeopathy, Sidhha, Allopathy, Naturopathy etc.); Literature & Education (includes Journalism, Teaching, Book composing, Literature, Poetry, Promotion of education, Promotion of literacy, Education Reforms etc.); Civil Service (includes distinction/excellence in administration etc. by Government Servants); Sports (includes popular Sports, Athletics, Adventure, Mountaineering, promotion of sports, Yoga etc.); Others (fields not covered above and may include propagation of Indian Culture, protection of Human Rights, Wild Life protection/conservation etc.)

The award is normally not conferred posthumously. However, in highly deserving cases, the Government could consider giving an award posthumously. A higher category of Padma award can be conferred on a person only where a period of at least five years has elapsed since conferment of the earlier Padma award. However, in highly deserving cases, a relaxation can be made by the Awards Committee.

The Prime Minister constitutes the Padma Awards Committee every year. It is headed by the Cabinet Secretary and includes Home Secretary, Secretary to the President and four to six eminent persons as members. The recommendations of the committee are submitted to the Prime Minister and the President of India for approval. The awards, announced on Republic Day, are conferred in March/ April in Rashtrapati Bhavan. So far, Padma Vibhushan has been awarded to 314 people, Padma Bhushan to 1271 and Padma Shri to 3123 people.

There has often been a debate on does India need so many civilian awards. With a large number of political leaders and civil servants getting these awards every year, there is always a question mark over the selection process. So much time, effort and energy are spent on selecting, vetting and securing the consent of the awardees. But do we even remember all of them? I am sure some of us wouldn’t know about even some of the Bharat Ratnas.

Some experts suggest it is time to revisit the awards and put a cap on them. They say the awards should be announced after gaps of two, three or four years, and not annually as it is done now. They have suggested that the government should allow states to confer the Padma Bhushan and the Padma Shri awards and the Centre should retain the right to confer only Bharat Ratna and Padma Vibhushan for Indians who are nationally or internationally acclaimed.

If we scan the list of Padma awardees even of the recent years, many of the names will not ring a bell. Maybe because theire sphere of work is limited to a state or parts of a state and that their names do not have nation-wide recall. Every time a name does the round as a prospective name for country’s highest civilian award, there are controversies. For example, many question if Sachin Tendulkar is the only sportsperson who deserved the Bharat Ratna; or, wonder why none of the non-Congress, non-BJP Prime Minister deserved the top civilian award.

And a large number of recipients have either declined to accept them or returned the awards later. Author Gita Mehta declined to accept a Padma award last year because she felt it would be questioned in an election year. Mehta, sister of Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik, took the correct decision, many would say.

Family members of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose have steadfastly refused to accept a posthumous Bharat Ratna for him, arguing quite sensibly that figures like Mahatma Gandhi and Netaji were beyond such honours. Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad had declined the honour by saying that those who sit on selection committees to decide on honours should not accept such honours themselves. PN Haksar, Principal Secretary to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi too had declined the honour in 1973 though he had played a key role in finalising the Simla Agreement between India and Pakistan. Writers Phanishwar Nath Renu and Khushwant Singh returned their awards, protesting against the Emergency and Operation Blue Star respectively.

Among those who declined Padma awards are Ustad Vilayat Khan, danseuse Sitara Devi, the first chief minister of Kerala EMS Namboodiripad, historian Romila Thapar, journalist Nikhil Chakravarty, industrialist Keshub Mahindra, theatre activist Sisir Kumar Bhaduri, author Krishna Sobti, singer S Janaki and screenwriter Salim Khan.

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